Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fuzzy Math

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Almost everyone who reads this question will have an immediate impulse to answer ‘10 cents.’ I surely did. As Dan Gardner says, “It just looks and feels right. And yet it’s wrong. In fact, it’s clearly wrong—if you give it some careful thought—and yet it is perfectly normal to stumble on this test. Almost everyone we ask reports an initial tendency to answer ‘ten cents,’ write psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick. Many people yield to this immediate impulse. People are often content to trust a plausible judgment that quickly comes to mind.”(1)

This type of response shows that we are quite susceptible to numbers thrown at us by the media, groups seeking funding for a specific cause, lawyers trying to convince a jury, or perhaps some recent event that has shaped our thoughts. Lets start with the latter one first.

After 9/11, many people shifted from planes to cars because of fear of flying. This shift lasted for about one year in the United States. Gerd Gigerenzer analyzed automobile fatalities for five years prior to the September 11 attacks and five years after. He found that fatalities soared on American roads after September 2001 and settled back to normal in September 2002. As a result of the surge in traffic patterns, he concluded that an additional 1,595 people died; more than half the death toll from the terrorist attacks.(2)

Dan Gardner reports that air travel is safer than driving even with terrorists. He reports, “The safety gap is so large, in fact, that planes would still be safer than cars even if the threat of terrorism were unimaginably worse than it actually is: An American professor calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a 1-in-135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking—a trivial risk compared to the annual 1-in-6000 odds of being killed in a car crash.”(2)

The media is notorious for spreading the fear factor. Brent Beckley notes that there are four billboards on the 40 mile drive from Norwich to Binghamton (Upstate New York) that announce, “Every 20 seconds a child is diagnosed with autism.” He says, “I hate these types of ads because I figure there is no way they can be true.” (3) Here’s the math; three kids per minute works out to 1,576,000 children per year. Since there are about 4 million children born every year, this means 3 out of 8 will become autistic. Hard to believe?

Even EPA folks can get carried away by the numbers game. John Brignell observes, “During a speech, Mary Nichols, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, claimed that the EPA’s proposed air pollution standard for ozone and particulate matter would save (hang on to your hat) 58 million lives. You may wish to be reminded that 2 million Americans die every year from all causes. I stand to be corrected but I think that this qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records.”(4)

Around 1985 saw an explosive awareness about the rapid spread of a deadly new virus. From Dan Gardner, “There was no treatment for AIDS. Get it and you were certain to die a slow, wasting death. And there was a good chance you would get it because a breakthrough into the heterosexual population was inevitable. ‘AIDS has both sexes running scared,’ Oprah Winfrey told her audience in 1987. ‘Research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That’s by 1990. One in five.’ Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called it ‘The biggest threat to health this nation ever faced.’ Turns out it didn’t work out that way, but we were very, very scared.(5)

What about AIDS in Africa? Based on reports I’ve heard over the years, I expected to see a drop in population in Africa because of this dreaded disease. Yet, since 1985, the population of sub-Saharan Africa has increased by 299 million, a 70 percent increase. This increase is equal to the entire present population of the United States.(6) What gives?

Here are some observations from Michael Fumento, “At least 30 percent of the entire adult population of Central Africa is infected with the AIDS virus, a doctor tells a US newspaper. A high Ugandan official says that within two years his nation will ‘be a desert.’ ABS News Nightline declares that within 12 years, ‘50 million Africans may have died of AIDS.’ Actually, those statements and predictions were all made between 1986 and 1988. Yet since 1985, Central Africa’s population has increased over 70 percent while Uganda’s has nearly doubled. Japan, conversely has close to no AIDS cases yet its population has essentially stopped. According to the UN’s latest estimate, Nightline’s predicted 50 million dead Africans by the year 2000 was actually 20 million head worldwide by the end of last year.”(7)

Epidemics like this and the autism scare mentioned earlier in this article always have and always will refuse to live up to the official predictions for one simple reason: The louder the Klaxon sounds, the more public and private contributions pour in. (7)

Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? How could you not? Leonard Mlodinow reports, “The renowned attorney and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz employed the prosecutor’s fallacy to help defend O.J. Simpson in his trial for the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a male companion.”(8) What is prosecutor’s fallacy? My simplistic definition is the clever use of statistics to make a point, while leaving out other important data.

The police had plenty of evidence against Simpson: a bloody glove at his estate that seemed to match one found at the murder scene; bloodstains matching Nicole’s blood on the gloves in his white Ford Bronco, on a pair of socks in his bedroom, and in his driveway and house. DNA samples taken from blood at the crime scene matched O.J.’s.

The prosecution focused much of its case on O.J.’s propensity to violence, claiming that this alone was a good reason to suspect him of her murder. The defense attorney countered that the evidence that O.J. had battered Nicole on prrevious occasions meant nothing. Here’s why according to Alan Dershowitz; 4 million women were battered annually by their husbands and boyfriends in the United States, yet in 1992, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, a total of 1,432, or 1 in 2,500 were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Therefore, few men who slap or beat their domestic partners go on to murder them. Mlodinow observes, “True? Yes. Convincing? Yes. Relevant? No. The relevant number is not the probability that a man who batters his wife will go on to kill her (1 in 2,500) but rather the probability that a battered wife who was murdered was murdered by her abuser. According to the Uniform Crime Reports for the United States and Its Possessions in 1993, the probability Dershowirtz (or the prosecution) should have reported was this one: of all the battered women murdered in the United States in 1993, some 90 percent were killed by their abuser. That statistic was not mentioned at the trial.”(8)

Mlodinow adds, “Dershowitz may have felt justified in misleading the jury because in his words, ‘the courtroom oath—to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’—is applicable only to witnesses. Defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges don’t take this oath…indeed, it is fair to say the American justice system is built on a foundation of not telling the whole truth.” (8)

The answer is 5 cents.

1. Dan Gardner, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, (Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 2008), 35

2. Dan Gardner, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, 4

3. Brent Beckley, private communication, January 24, 2008

4. John Brignell, Sorry Wrong Number! (Great Britain, Brignell Associates, 2000), 217

5. Dan Gardner, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, 347

6. Tom Bethell, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, (Washington, DC, Regnery Publishing, 2005), 118

7. Michael Fumento, “AIDS and Fuzzy Math,” Tech Central Station, July 15, 2004

8. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk, (New York, Pantheon Books, 2008), 119

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Regulations and Schlimmbesserung

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

Have you heard of the word schlimmbesserung? It means intended improvements that make things worse. As Robert Matthews states, “This is a word that should be in the lexicon of anyone trying to protect the environment. Federal agencies are often criticized for imposing ineffective, costly regulations on individuals and businesses that do little to improve public health and safety.” Give them the benefit of doubt that they are really trying to make things better but in some cases schlimmbesserung occurs.


Biofuels are a good example of schlimmbesserung. World food prices are being driven upwards largely because of the increasing use of biofuels. Nigel Lawson observes, “Biofuels, such as ethanol, have their own downsides. In the first place, as studies have shown, it is far from clear that ethanol produces significantly more energy than is used in its own production. In the second place, it requires a vast amount of land to produce a relatively small amount of ethanol. This not only antagonizes environmentalists, upset by the destruction of rainforests for this purpose, but also has led to a marked rise in food prices, in particular the price of grain. Indeed in June 2007, the Chinese government suspended its production of ethanol explicitly for this reason.”

The Guardian discusses a report by the World Food Bank which claims that biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75%--far more than previously estimated. This figure noticeably contradicts the US government’s claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food prices. The report also adds, “Rising food prices have pushed 100 million people below the poverty line, and have sparked riots from Bangladesh to Egypt. Government ministers here have described higher food and fuel process as the first real economic crisis of globalization.” In Mexico City last February, some 75,000 people marched in protest at the dramatic rise in the price of tortillas, a corn-based staple of their diet that typically consumes one-third of a poor family’s income. Indonesia, Algeria, and Nigeria have also seen protests.

On another front, switching land use from food crops to biofuels could result in increased emissions of pollutants such as nitrous oxide and ozone and increased net carbon injection into the atmosphere. Research at Stanford University indicates that pollution from ethanol could end up creating a worse health hazard than gasoline, especially for people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Victims of the CFCs ban

The federal ban on ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), to conform with the Clean Air Act , is ironically affecting millions of people in the US who suffer from asthma. Emily Harrision reports, “In 1987 Congress signed on to the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international treaty requiring the phasing out of all nonessential uses of CFCs. At that time, medical inhalers were considered an essential use because no viable alternative propellant existed. In 1989, pharmaceutical companies banded together and eventually in 1996, reformulated albuterol with hydrofluoroalkane (HFA), an ozone-safe propellant. After more than one brand of HFA-albuterol became available, the US Food and Drug Administration declared in 2005 that CFC inhalers were no longer essential and must be completely off the shelves by the last day of this year.” Leslie Hendeles says, “In the United States, about 52 million prescriptions for albuterol are filled annually, making it the seventh most commonly prescribed medication in the country.” The ban will have an insignificant effect on ozone since albuterol inhalers contributed less than 0.1 percent of the CFCs released when the treaty was signed. However, the replacement alternatives can be three times as expensive, raising the cost to about $40 per inhaler. Harrison adds, “The issue is even more disconcerting considering that asthma disproportionately affects the poor and that, according to recent surveys, an estimated 20 percent of asthma patients are uninsured.”

Cleaner air and recovery of the ozone hole increase global warming?

Christian Ruckstuhl and his colleagues at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Switzerland recently reported that the rapid temperature increase of 1 degree C over mainland Europe since 1989 is considerably larger than the temperature rise expected from anthropogenic greenhouse gas increases. Their work led to the conclusion that direct aerosol effect has an approximately five time larger an impact on climate forcing than the indirect aerosol and other cloud effects, or in other words, as Robert Matthews notes, “the clean-up campaigns are another schlimmbesserung, with the airborne gunk actually having a powerful—and beneficial—impact on temperatures, by reflecting the sun’s heat back into space.”

The Montreal Protocol was mentioned earlier. After years of decline, the springtime concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere high over Antarctica have begun to increase, a sign that the ozone hole is recovering. Good news? Well, depends on your point of view. According to some recent research this could mean increasing temperatures in Antarctica. Until now, the interior of Antarctica has not been warming with the rest of the world. The lack of ozone in the lower stratosphere over Antarctica in the springtime caused less absorption of ultraviolet radiation and this leads to cooler temperatures than normal. Recent work postulates this will change as the ozone hole recovers. Seok-Woo San and his colleagues at Columbia University speculated in Science that a full recovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the coming years could significantly boost warming of the atmosphere over and around the icy continent. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, confirm these results, reporting that simulated atmospheric temperatures at altitudes between 10 and 20 kilometers would be as much as 9 degrees C warmer after the ozone hole has recovered than they are today. This certainly would mean in increase in warming at ground level in Antarctica.

Planting the wrong trees could also affect global warming

If you’re going to plant a tree to save the Earth, you better make sure to plant the right kind of tree. Trees affect the reflectivity of the Earth and its availability to bounce back some of the sun’s heat into space. Covering large swatches of light ground with dark trees could lead to more heat being absorbed, boosting temperature. Gregory Asner and his colleagues note that only trees planted in equatorial regions are likely to produce a net benefit. Those planted further away—especially in high latitudes where snow is common—are likely to lead to increased global warming. Also, non-native trees invading a rainforest can change its basic ecological structure, rendering it less hospitable to the myriad plant and animal species that depend on its resources.


Robert Matthews sums this up quite well. “The upshot of all this is clear: when it comes to the environment, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What isn’t at all clear is whether it will ever be possible to have sufficient knowledge to make big environmental policy decisions with any confidence.”